Back and forth to Belgrade

by Marko Dinic

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

There is no other route anywhere which makes me feel more compelled to write than the road to Belgrade. Since my childhood days that journey has set the rhythm of my family’s life, all those 14 or 12 or 10 or 8-hour trips, with their length depending on where we lived in the German-speaking world and whether we went by car or bus. Regardless of the journey, we would always wind up on the Hungarian motorway, pure boredom cast in asphalt.

The route undertaken by Serbian guest workers is the product of a quiet agreement between the travellers and the fact that they have always preferred cheaper travel options. For example, the journey via Slovenia and Croatia to Belgrade would be much shorter, but due to the Karawanks tunnel and excessive motorway tolls it is much more expensive. If they travelled through the former Yugoslavia, some people would be overcome by nostalgia or anger about the suffering and bloodshed, meaning that the Hungarian motorway is less of a compromise and more of a necessity. Such deep scars take time to heal. Both contemporary needs and the war shifted these well-travelled routes - then shame cut off the connection for the generations that followed.

As a child I did not attach any deeper significance to all those journeys with their differing starting points and Belgrade as a destination. Our annoyance at the unpleasant and long journey was vented at the driver and co-driver. My little brother did the only right thing in such a cramped situation: he slept. Meanwhile the bus journeys to our alleged homeland repelled me as a child. From the start, there were no positives for me in the confusion of chain-smoking, loud-talking adults, the films running in permanent loops or the shrill music. There was no romance in the air, only the immeasurable kilometres of motorways, which, like a nightmare, had no real sense of time or length. There was only the silent prayer of every Serbian traveller hoping to cross the Hungarian border to Serbia quickly and safely. It is an informal prayer, familiar to anyone who has had to wait seven hours on that border, perched, with wounded ass cheeks, on the uncomfortable and worn seats.

Perhaps the game between Serbian travellers and Hungarian customs officers was the first thing I consciously noticed on these trips: On the one hand, the Serbs, while travelling, sat cursing the Hungarian officials and their mothers behind their backs, but they got increasingly quiet and devout as the border approached. After a while they were sitting, almost frightened in their seats, staring rigidly forward, as if to fix the enemy in their gaze. And on the other side, there were the Hungarian customs officers, who, if it suited them, changed shifts every four hours, took whole family carriages apart, sent dogs sniffing through the rows, shamelessly collected bribes, or simply fixed us with an evil stare. I've never seen any of them smile, not even fleetingly. The border between Hungary and Serbia was actually the border between the USA and Mexico, at least that was my impression when I first watched Robert Rodriguez’s "From Dusk Till Dawn". It was then that I started thinking about the Hungarian-Serbian border and our trips through it, the only constant thread in my life.

My curiosity was paired with boredom, forging a feeling as inherent to such a long journey as an amen is to a prayer (of course I could read a newspaper or a book, but the travel sickness, oh, that travel sickness!), I once calculated that I must have already circumnavigated the earth one and a half times with a bus; that was back in 2010. Since then, I have added quite a few more kilometres, not to mention the many different faces, stories, smells and rumours.

If someone has spent so much time in a non-place, where time per se is subject to a different rhythm, following different rules than usual, then real life inevitably intervenes at some point. Once my mother spent the entire journey from Stuttgart to Belgrade treating my ear, which had been so badly inflamed that the day before I spent twelve hours caught in a feverish dream. Not even the Hungarian customs officer wanted to wake me up when we stopped at the border, I must have looked so miserable. Even a three-year distance relationship between Munich and Belgrade meant that I boarded the metal giants of the motorway several times - the delights of first love and the megalomania and simplicity that accompany it! I first got news of the death of my grandmother during one of these trips from Belgrade to Munich. It was the first time in my life that I lost a person close to me. Today I hardly remember that day, just the strange sense of being locked up in a bus in a desperate situation. incapable of releasing my emotions or even a single tear, even though I wanted nothing more. I was preoccupied by worries of what others would think of me. Those faceless others who I felt ashamed in front of back then, but today I just feel ashamed of my reaction.

The bus is not a means of transport. For the diaspora from the former Yugoslavia, it is a state, a non-place, something which has burrowed itself deeply into the cultural memory of the inhabitants of the Balkan countries and which is as intrinsic to their identity as the fact of having to back-and-forth between the country of origin and their country of residence. This commuting between cultures entails great possibilities and dangers: As a living contradiction, it is a blessing for some, a curse for others; for some it leads to education, for others early death through years of overwork; for some it is a possibility to lead a decent life in a halfway regulated democracy, for others it merely confirms that there is nowhere more beautiful, better, more splendid than back in their alleged homeland. This dichotomy of always living with a foot elsewhere, always aware of the possibility of being able to leave one's own country and even having to leave it. This reality has a lasting influence on societies and shapes people’s thoughts and actions. And there is the question of how to integrate into a new society, when living between two countries makes you feel so ill at ease; not least when your neighbour, the television, newspapers, the politicians and the bathroom mirror keep plastering you with the same label: Migrant, refugee, foreigner, Jew.

Few people from the West know these feelings as they have never been forced to leave their own countries in the hope that a new home will await them elsewhere. They chase a non-redeemable ticket to an economic paradise, which in reality is a hell on four wheels. Beyond the clichés and the borders, life is more banal, more sad.

Today I will get on the bus again at 9 pm in Vienna, direction Belgrade. I know that somewhere I'm creating a migrant existence for myself, and that many things would be easier if I just got on the plane and saved myself another exhausting trip. But it is still my goddamned life that steers me towards this in-between state, I’m back on the bus, both out of conviction and out of fear of not being able to feel the situation on the Hungarian border with Serbia in my pinched ass cheeks. Life is sometimes really banal - they have announced a storm for Saturday.

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